Bobby Dye swears it happened.
Twenty-five years ago this month, with his Cal State (Who?) Fullerton Titans poised to shock Arkansas at Albuquerque in the West Regional final, Dye's mind drifted briefly from backcourt at The Pit to back lot at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
"I saw Judy Garland, the Tin Man and the Straw Man running down the yellow brick road," Dye said last week. "Yes, it ran through my mind: 'We're off to see the Wizard.' "
Not so Fullerton fast.
It came down to Arkansas, up by a point, missing a free throw with 10 seconds left and Fullerton guard Keith Anderson streaking down court with the ball and a chance to send the Titans to Oz.
"You couldn't ask for a better ending," Greg Bunch, the star forward from that Titan team, recalled. "You come back, you have the ball in the hands of the guy who is the hottest player on the team."
Anderson had only one take on this shoot, though, and was stripped of the ball as he tried to drive the lane. That was that.
Dye is retired now, living in Carlsbad, a quarter-century removed from his finest coaching achievement. Every now and then, he'll pop the Arkansas-Fullerton tape into his VCR and let the memories flood.
He recalls the timeout he called with 20 seconds left against Arkansas, his team down by one. Dye wanted the Titans to trap Arkansas' in-bounds pass with a play called "sideline," but one panic-stricken Titan forgot the play.
Dye snapped his fingers for a stick of chalk but Fullerton trainer Jerry Lloyd couldn't-for-the-life-of-him locate one in the three-piece, multi-pocketed suit he'd purchased for his appearance on national television.
"The clock is running down," Dye said, laughing, "I'm thinking, 'If he can get me the chalk, we go to the Final Four.' He's slapping himself trying to find it, and finally he finds it, pulls the chalk out, but his hands are trembling so bad the chalk drops on the floor and splatters. We have no chalk."
Dye had to scrap the play, but darn if it didn't almost work out anyway.
"We were up by one with a minute to play to go to the Final Four," Dye said. "But as dramatic as the run was, there was also disappointment. We had conditioned ourselves mentally to win."
In a three-week blaze, "Cal State Who" seized the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tournament crown, stunned heavily favored New Mexico (with Michael Cooper), San Francisco (with Bill Cartwright), nearly ousted Arkansas (with Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph) and outlasted UCLA (newspaper headline: "Fullerton in, UCLA Out.")
Then, poof, it was over.
That 1978 courtship remains Cal State Fullerton's only NCAA tournament appearance.
When you think about it, really, the beauty of these out-of-nowhere runs is not that they happen so often -- it's that they happen so rarely.
You can count the real miracles on one hand: Pennsylvania with no scholarship players plowing into the 1979 Final Four; Cleveland State pushing Navy to the brink in 1986; Loyola Marymount's three-week passion play in 1990.
Truth is, Team Underdog is supposed to go under and it's no fluke Troy State is going to its first NCAA tournament 28 years after John Wooden coached in his last one.
Twenty-seven schools have made one NCAA tournament appearance, lost, and never returned. Cal State Fullerton and Cleveland State are the only one-hit wonders to have won two tournament games.
Since the NCAA bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the 16th-seeded schools are 0-72 against the No. 1s.
Once in a while you get a pop-through performance from Kent State or Valparaiso or Richmond or get to go gaga over Gonzaga.
But far more often than you get lucky, you get Kentucky.
"You have a huge bias toward the big schools," Tom Peabody, one of the cogs in Loyola Marymount's 1990 squad, maintains.
Peabody thinks Loyola was able to make history only because the team's two stars, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, had transferred in from USC.
"It was just dumb luck," Peabody said of the key acquisitions.
Although the possibility of the impossible makes the NCAA tournament the most quixotic of sporting events, the cold facts remain:
Of the 18 national titles claimed since 1985, 16 have been won by schools seeded fourth or better. The top-seeded schools have hogged 32 Final Four spots and 11 national titles. The only school seeded ninth or worse to make the Final Four since 1985 was No. 11 Louisiana State in 1986.
Will there be a breakthrough team this year, another one-hit wonder like the '78 spun by Bobby D and the Titans?
In 2028, might we wax nostalgic about kids from East Tennessee State, or Wagner, North Carolina Wilmington, or maybe Brad Holland's Toreros at San Diego?
Maybe, maybe not.
Dye says there's a reason these things don't happen more often -- busting through is hard to do.
"San Diego, they have a terrific team," he said, "but they're going to play Godzilla that first game out, some real powerhouse. I think that's intimidating from teams coming from that level. It mentally intimidates you. But, if you can get by that first game ... "
The dreamers dream because, in the course of human events, sometimes the Kongs of the world get gonged.
"Every now and then, you will get a sleeper with some guys that can really play and take you to the limit," said Ken "Mouse" McFadden, the star guard on Cleveland State's 1986 Sweet 16 run. "All it takes is one game. Two hours. Give 'em hell for two hours."
Just One Look
Trying to rank the best out-of-nowhere tournament runs is tough -- like asking Bill Walton to rank his children.
To start, you must establish the criteria.
Oregon won the first NCAA title in 1939 -- first-round regional game, no lie, played on Treasure Island -- and has not returned to a Final Four since, but you'd hardly call the Ducks tournament-starved.
No. 10 Kent State made the South regional final last year after knocking off Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pittsburgh. But Kent State, the program, already had notched a first-round KO over Indiana in 2001.
In 1970, back when St. Bonaventure players finished out their seasons, Bob Lanier led the Bonnies to the Final Four and, had Lanier not been injured, they might have defeated Jacksonville for the right to play UCLA.
One must consider Seton Hall's run to the title game in 1989, a controversial one-point overtime loss to Michigan (come now, was Rumeal Robinson really fouled?).
Indiana State's 1979 chart topper, "Let's Make a Run," by Larry Bird and the Sycamores, belongs in any collector's catalog, yet its stand-aloneness has been tempered by two return NCAA trips (Indiana State upset Oklahoma in 2001).
No. 8 Villanova in 1985 played a nearly perfect game and shocked Georgetown, 66-64, making 22 of 28 shots, but Villanova had already played for a national title in 1971.
Richmond ranks as the tournament's all-time pest, with a record four first-round victories seeded No. 10 or lower. Remember the spider web it threw on No. 4 Indiana and No. 5 Georgia Tech in 1988?
North Carolina State came from nowhere to win it all in 1983, but this was not a nowhere program, as any UCLA fan alive in 1974 could attest.
You might take a shine to Charlotte in 1977 with Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell, or Drake losing to UCLA in the 1969 Final Four, cranking out tournament wins in 1970 and 1971 before Sir Francis' sails disappeared over the horizon.
You could speak out on Oral Roberts over Syracuse and Louisville in its first NCAA shot in 1974 and making only one appearance since, or Valparaiso's father-and-son Sweet 16 pancake breakfast run in 1998. What about Baylor cracking the Final Four in 1948 and 1950 and then going back to its cave until 1988?
Texas Western's title-game victory over Kentucky in 1966 was the most important basketball game in history -- Coach Don Haskins' five black starters defeating Adolph Rupp's all-white Wildcats -- but, truth is, the Miners had won a game in the 1964 tournament.
Yet, propriety demands we settle on a Final Four:
Season in the Sun
What a Bunch -- one named Greg.
"An eclectic group," Bunch, who works for NBC in cable network distribution, said.
Mike Linden, the point guard from Yonkers, used to drive home on weekends and make it back to the Fullerton campus for Tuesday practice.
Kevin Heenan wore welder's goggles, was so thin he needed a bathtub stopper, but he could shoot.
Bunch was the polished pearl, a future NBA player.
Steve Shaw, the center, was undersized and power forward Mike Niles was a power in the post and a tragedy in wait.
"You never know when a team will come together and under what circumstances," Bunch said.
The Titans finished third in the PCAA in 1977-78 and earned their only NCAA bid by winning the conference tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center.
The euphoria was dampened when NCAA brackets were released. Dye calls it the "oh my God" realization.
"It's always a jolt when you see who you're going to play," Dye said.
Fullerton drew No. 4 New Mexico, a national power led by Cooper, in a first-round game at Tempe, Ariz. Dye nearly walked out of the Titans' first practice that week because he felt his team was resigned to losing.
"I told them, 'I'm not wasting my time. I'll meet you guys in Tempe,' " Dye recalled.
It was no act, the players knew it, and that made all the difference.
"I convinced them that I was convinced they could win," Dye said.
Fullerton upset New Mexico, then threw a rope and yanked down San Francisco, ranked No. 1 for much of the season, in a West Regional semifinal.
Before the Arkansas game, Dye told his team, "You guys are writing history."
Bunch and Co. bought the script.
"Where was it written we can't win this thing?" Bunch recalled of the feeling. "That we can't achieve something that is monumental?"
My kingdom for a horse?
Oh, what Dye might have given for a stick of chalk.
The postscript wasn't as postcard pretty. Niles, the team's enforcer, is serving a life sentence after having been convicted of the murder-for-hire killing of his wife.
Dye spurned offers from Purdue and California, stayed at Fullerton and retired two years later, a burnout casualty.
He resurfaced to lead mini-revivals at Cal State Bakersfield and Boise State.
In 1988, under Dye, No. 14 Boise State pushed No. 3 Michigan to the limit before losing, 63-58.
Dye, apparently, failed to read the fine print on back of the NCAA tournament soup can:
Only one miracle per customer.
Hank, Bo, an incredible offense, a tragic death and a four-game run for the ages.
For palm sweat and drama, nothing in NCAA tournament history can touch what Loyola Marymount pulled off in 1990.
"Those four weeks, both the good and bad, have impacted my approach to life more than any other four weeks I've had," Peabody, now a Long Beach attorney, said. "It was the worst of times and best of times mixed together."
The worst hit home March 4, 1990, when Gathers, the star forward, collapsed and died during a West Coast Conference tournament game on his home court.
Peabody remembers the surreal feeling of flying home from Philadelphia after Gathers' funeral while trying to mentally prepare for the NCAA tournament.
Gathers' death dropped Loyola to a No. 11 seeding in the West and there was no worldly way to anticipate what would happen next.
Fueled by adrenaline, Paul Westhead's Lions routed New Mexico State in Long Beach, Kimble starting an indescribable day by swishing his first free-throw left-handed in tribute to Gathers.
Loyola Marymount sent defending champion Michigan home in Round 2 and followed with a victory over Alabama in a regional semifinal in Oakland before catching a bad bracketing break in having to face Nevada Las Vegas, one of the most dominating teams in NCAA tournament history.
"It was a magical team, irrespective of Hank's passing," Peabody said. "There was no reason Loyola Marymount should have been that good. It was a great combination of players who knew their role in a system that was unique."
The Lions have failed to make another NCAA tournament, the weight of 1990 hitting the program like a ton.
As for the basketball played over the course of those three weeks?
"Once the whistle blew, it was everything you'd ever want," Peabody said. "But for one thing [Gathers' death], I wouldn't trade a thing."
Nothing Compares 2U
No way Cleveland State was going down in 1986. Not after getting shafted by the tournament committee in 1985 and not given the high-speed way the Vikings covered the court.
The opponent didn't matter.
"They were losing," Ken McFadden said.
McFadden recalls no one flinched when the television flashed No. 14 Cleveland State versus No. 3 Indiana in the East.
"That first game, you could have matched us against anyone you wanted," he said. "They lost. Soon as we saw Indiana, we said, 'They lost.' "
Indiana lost, 83-79.
Cleveland State played at a hummingbird's pace and defeated St. Joseph's in the second round. McFadden, a freshman, totaled 32 points in the first two games.
At the East Regional in East Rutherford, N.J., the Vikings ran into a bigger ship, the U.S. Navy, led by center David Robinson.
Cleveland State gave Navy all it wanted before losing, 71-70, swab-the-decks Robinson cleaning up for 22 points, 14 rebounds and nine blocks.
"It was the first time I understood the meaning of domination," said McFadden, who works in athletic sales at Cleveland State. "This dude was 7-foot tall. I asked our coach, 'Do we have to play him?' "
Indiana rebounded in 1987 to win the national title. Cleveland State had not appeared in the tournament before 1986 and has not been back since.
Kevin Mackey, then Vikings' coach, eventually left the school after a battle with substance abuse.
"After Kevin, that party was over," McFadden said of Cleveland State.
Don't Give Up on Us
Pennsylvania qualified for its 20th NCAA tournament this year, but two words make the Quakers' 1979 run to the Final Four historic: no scholarships.
"How did it happen?" asked Tony Price, the star of that team. "I don't know. Obviously, they weren't paying us."
The shocker was Penn's second-round, 72-71 win over North Carolina in Raleigh. It was so difficult to fathom that one North Carolina paper reported in its next-morning headline that Penn State had won.
Price, who scored 27, 25, 20 and 21 points in his team's first four tournament victories, said it was a foregone conclusion Penn would lose to North Carolina on Carolina soil.
"My own mother wouldn't come to the game," Price said. "She said she didn't want to see us lose. It was like going to your funeral."
The Penn station train came to a halt in Salt Lake City with a 101-67 blowout by Magic Johnson-led Michigan State. The score was 50-17 at the half.
Basketball remains indebted to Penn for allowing us Bird versus Magic in the final, although Price was so embarrassed at the time he refused to wear his Final Four ring.
He came around after Johnson's third or fourth NBA title.
"I finally said, 'I guess I shouldn't feel too bad losing to him,' " said Price, who works for a New York City insurance brokerage.
To this day, he said, people in melting pot Manhattan stop him and ask if he is the Tony Price of Penn lore.
"It's a good thing people remember me," Price said. "I think I represented the game well. I did something positive. America loves underdogs and I think we were one of the biggest underdogs ever."